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2020/2021 was the Extended Year of Isolation, but in reality, the concept of isolation has plagued individuals and piqued philosophers and poets for centuries. In this Understanding feature, we examine the past, present and future of isolation from our unique position as survivors of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Self-Isolation in

Ancient Times

After a year of government-mandated lockdowns, it’s tempting to think that no one before us has ever experienced profound isolation. However, cultures throughout time have relied on isolation — whether self-imposed or demanded by society — as a tool to shape and sharpen an individual’s character. Consider the following examples:

Thanks to the film “300,” many of us were introduced to the rites and rituals of Spartan warriors. In the opening scene, the future king Leonidas is banished to the cold and brutal wilderness to survive using nothing but his own wits. This is based on some historical evidence. Spartan boys were taken away from their families at a young age to train, study and prove themselves worthy in the agoge. A key part of this experience was the krupteia or krypteia — a name coming from the word for “secret” or “hidden.” For one year, the Spartan boy had to seclude himself, without supplies, and remain hidden from view. When he returned from this “severe training in hardihood,” his old self was left behind and replaced by a self-reliant, resourceful hoplite warrior. A few centuries later, after the rise of Christianity, some devout followers turned to isolation to inspire moral and spiritual growth. One such group were the eremites, or hermits, a term derived from the Greek erēmitēs, “living in the desert.” Although a desert wasn’t a requirement, many of the first eremites lived in the dry, arid regions around Egypt. To escape persecution from the Romans, these Christians fled into the desert to lead a life of prayer and penance. Paul of Thebes, who fled to the desert about 250 BCE, may have been the first hermit.

The behavior of hermits laid the groundwork for the institution of monasticism. First came the anchorites, who isolated themselves in a cell or structure attached to a church, then came monks, who frequently lived together in cenobitic (common life) communities. Both monasticism and monk are derived from the Greek monachos (“living alone”), which seems like a strange paradox, though it makes more sense if you consider that monks live isolated from mainstream society, not necessarily as solitary individuals. First applied to Christian groups in antiquity, the term monasticism is now used to denote similar, though not identical, practices in religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Daoism.

Visionaries whose innovations stemmed from isolation

“Nothing makes the earth seem so spacious as to have friends at a distance: they make the latitudes and longitudes.”— Henry David Thoreau

As creatives, we often work in isolation. Yes, we work on teams and collaborate to brainstorm and ideate. But, when it’s time to put pen to paper (or stylus to screen), we usually retreat into our own heads and work alone. Indeed, it’s an inevitable necessity of the creative process — we alone must face the vast emptiness of the blank page and begin to fill it with our words, thoughts and designs.
In this way, isolation is an ancient and, dare we say, a positive force. Luckily for us, many brilliant minds have utilized isolation as a creative resource — and have produced amazing results. Two notable examples of astounding creatives or visionaries who have brought inspiration or hope to the world are poet Emily Dickinson, and the most notable of all, Henry David Thoreau.

Henry David Thoreau was an emerging philosopher, poet and environmental scientist when he went to live in the woods by Walden Pond, a glacier-generated lake just outside of Concord, Massachusetts. For two years, beginning in 1845, Thoreau lived in isolation, not just living in the woods, but thinking about living in the woods. He recorded his reflections in narrative prose that is at once poetic and highly philosophic as he sought to find a reflective understanding of reality that could inform a life of wisdom. In 1854, these writings were published in his literary masterpiece Walden, a work that has inspired generations of readers.

Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, some 75 miles from Thoreau’s birthplace in Concord. At the Amherst Academy, where she studied for seven years, Emily reveled in the science-heavy curriculum that focused on astronomy, botany, chemistry, geology, mathematics, natural history, natural philosophy and zoology. Although she briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, she returned to her family’s house in Amherst, where she spent much of her life in isolation, writing prolifically, corresponding with friends and studying nature. Her poems, which often defied conventional poetic rules, were not published until after her death in 1886.

Who else makes the list? Some may surprise you. Read the full story >>



Isolation has a negative connotation, stressing involuntary detachment from others. In biology, however, isolation can be a force of positive change.


Isolation. Solitude. Loneliness.

We’ve heard these words on a daily basis for many months now, typically within the context of public health warnings related to physical and emotional health.Isolation — which got more than its share of attention — is actually a very useful construct because it keeps someone who is sick away from others. Solitude is the state of seclusion one may experience during such isolation; and it is feared that far too many people in isolation are suffering intense feelings of loneliness.

While it’s easy to blur loneliness, isolation and solitude together, they’re no less meaningful to the human condition. So how can we tell their subtleties apart?
Isolation is a way to know ourselves
Franz Kafka

From the Latin word insula, which means island, isolation or isolate is the act of physically or theoretically separating somebody or something (or oneself), as in an isolation ward. Isolation can be geographical or conceptual; it also means the state of being separate. It’s the process or fact of isolating or being isolated. Scientists commonly isolate substances or microorganisms to study them in their purest states. As an adjective, isolated means alone.

Loneliness is the poverty of self; Solitude is richness of self
May Sarton

In modern English, solitude means the state or quality of being alone or remote from others—often evoking a sense of choice. Although solitude is commonly believed to cause the feeling of loneliness, that’s not necessarily true for everyone. American writer, journalist and professor Jeanne Marie Laskas perhaps differentiates isolation from solitude best: “Isolation is aloneness that feels forced upon you, like a punishment. Solitude is aloneness you choose and embrace.”

If you’re lonely when you are alone, you’re in bad company
Jean-Paul Sartre

Loneliness is the mental/emotional effect of isolation or solitude, or at least the perception of being alone. In “The History of Loneliness,” published in the New Yorker magazine, writer Jill Lepore posits, “Loneliness is grief, distended … You can live alone without being lonely, and you can be lonely without living alone, but the two are closely tied together. Loneliness, it seems unnecessary to say, is terrible for your health.”

Continuing to Reduce Isolation in the Virtual Workplace

As more companies announce their plans to continue some form of remote work, we offer helpful tips to foster inclusion.

In 2019 — well before the pandemic — a study from the EY Belonging Barometer found that 40% of employees surveyed reported feeling isolated in the workplace. In the post-pandemic era, with many organizations continuing their remote-working policies, this sense of isolation may get more profound. So how can leaders promote inclusion and help their employees feel less isolated? Managers will need to learn how to communicate in new and different ways if they are to improve employee morale in the “virtual workplace.” In fact, career development manager Brie Weiler Reynolds, said this in a recent U.S. News & World Report article: “Communication is really the foundation of good remote work. It helps you stay on the same page as your teammates and supervisors, and [it] helps keep teams productive and cohesive.”
“A strong sense of belonging can lead to better collaboration, retention and business performance. When we feel we belong, we are more motivated and engaged. It significantly reduces stress levels and improves physical health, emotional well-being and performance.”
EY Belonging Barometer Study

7 Ways


“The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.”
Emily Dickinson



Isolation By Design

When employed effectively, the result leaves very little doubt about where the focal point is.

Isolation in graphic design is a particularly useful technique — where you need to grab the viewer’s attention quickly and leave a memorable imprint. Read More >>

Marketing to a Generation Raised in Isolation

Change is the Only Constant

The world has changed drastically, and not solely in terms of the epidemiological research being conducted and effects of a worldwide pandemic; but also in terms of marketing to a generation raised in isolation. What kind of consumer will emerge in this unexplored frontier?

Online Stores Grow

It is likely no surprise to anyone that online retail and e-commerce channels will continue to proliferate in the aftermath of the pandemic. Meal kit delivery services, such as HelloFresh, Daily Harvest and Blue Apron, will remain popular because they reinvigorated our love of preparing meals as a family.

By the same token, apps such as Tinder, Match and OKCupid, which introduced a large number of new users to the experience of online dating, will continue to perform well. Finally, technologies that enable work from home (yo, Slack and Zoom) will also emerge as power brands.

At-Home Brands

The influx of people retreating into their homes during the pandemic accelerated the use of at-home brands and products (think Wayfair, Peloton, Casper, Instacart, Brooklinen, Carvana). Now, many people who used to commute to work five days a week will never return to a conventional office space.

Companies like Twitter have already announced that all workers will work remotely even after stay-at-home orders expire, and more and more companies are adopting a hybrid work policy that allows employees tremendous flexibility. That’s good news for the at-home brand market, which should remain strong long after the pandemic is over.

SEO Rules

Just as employees will commute less after COVID, they will also make fewer trips to conventions, conferences and face-to-face events. That means companies will need to rely even more on search engine optimization (SEO) and enhanced online experiences.

SEO will become increasingly more competitive as businesses try to nab the top three search results for their particular products. And retailers will have to make websites that deliver the most enjoyable experience possible, encouraging faster loading times and high-impact graphics that direct, inform and engage. A positive outcome of this trend will be better, friendlier, faster websites.

New Habits

It’s convenient to think that younger consumers will forget the habits they developed during the global pandemic and will return to the branding and marketing paradigms of their parents, but this is unlikely. Their stilted introduction to a locked-down global economy will almost assuredly change how they relate to and choose their favorite brands.

Markets once considered prosperous and open will likely remain under a cloud of suspicion just because young people were coming of age as consumers during the COVID crisis. This risk of permanence is a challenge all brands will deal with for years to come.

If you ever feel lonely, just remember that Curiosity sings Happy Birthday to itself every Aug. 5

Prepping to Survive in Isolation on Mars

Perhaps one of the most profound discoveries resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has been our resilience in the face of the many forms of isolation the lockdown has required. Whether separated from family, friends, co-workers or from society in general, people have found new ways to survive, mentally and emotionally. We’ve harnessed technology to enable working from home, to alleviate loneliness and stay connected to others, and many have learned how to overcome and even embrace isolation in ways they never before thought possible.

NASA’s goal is to land humans on Mars sometime in the next 20 years — and Elon Musk believes SpaceX’s first crewed Mars mission could launch as early as 2026. The question is no longer whether we’ll ever go to the Red Planet or when, but what we’ll need to survive the voyage, which could take up to three years, including the round trip and an extended stay on the planet’s surface of up to six months. Even more importantly, though, what will humans need to survive in isolation, either alone or with a small crew of fellow astronauts?

Read More
So how can we apply what we’ve learned about isolation during the pandemic to help astronauts survive future space missions?

When traveling 140 million miles into deep space and back, obviously, there are many technical considerations for ensuring survival, including oxygen (the atmosphere on Mars is only 0.16 percent oxygen), food, water, shelter from the cold temperatures (which can fall as low as -284°F, four times colder than Antarctica) and a reliable supply of power. Scientists have already figured out how to provide many of the basics. For example,

  • NASA has funded several missions to Mars looking for the presence of water, either frozen or vaporized, beneath the surface, and the Mars Rover Perseverance, which landed in February 2021, is testing a new instrument that converts elements of Martian soil into drinking water.
  • In an experiment funded by NASA, engineers at the University of California, San Diego are studying a way to build potential human habitats there by producing bricks from pressurized Martian soil.
  • NASA scientists have already tested a nuclear fission power supply on Earth and demonstrated it is safe, efficient and plentiful enough to enable long-duration surface missions.

Beyond the basic physical needs of survival, however, psychologists believe it’s going to take a different kind of mental fortitude to travel to Mars and back. Even for astronauts, who are screened for mental and emotional fitness well before being chosen for spaceflight, the psychological demands of the challenging mission to Mars will be exceptional.

The spacecraft itself will be small, roughly the size of a studio apartment, and once it lands, NASA is currently planning to combine the first Martian home and vehicle into a single rover complete with breathable air — much like an RV, this pressurized rover will have everything inside that astronauts need to live and work for weeks as they take the ultimate road trip on the never-before-traveled planet.

As part of NASA’s Human Research Program (HRP), scientists are studying the behavior of astronaut crews on mock missions within an analog environment, complete with isolation, confinement, sleep deprivation and specially designed tasks and remote mission control to mimic real space travel.

To ensure that astronauts achieve mission goals, they must be able to perform at peak productivity under even the most daunting conditions, so HRP scientists and engineers are working to improve astronauts’ ability to collect data, solve problems and respond to emergencies, while at the same time remaining healthy during and after extended space travel. In addition to physiological, medical and environmental factors, the researchers are tasked with characterizing and mitigating human factors and behavioral performance risks associated with living and working in space.

NASA is sharing the results of these studies with the public in a variety of ways to help people cope with similar stressors here on Earth, as in this article, “Isolation – What Can We Learn from the Experiences of NASA Astronauts?” and in this NASA podcast focused on isolation.

I’m going to Mars and I’m taking…

Everyone’s familiar with the classic road trip game, “Going to Grandma’s House,” where the first player says, “I’m going to Grandma’s house and I’m taking an apple….” The next player repeats what the first person is bringing and adds an item beginning with the next letter of the alphabet; players keep going until they no longer remember the order or forget an item. If you were an astronaut on the first mission to Mars, what would you take with you to survive, physically, mentally and emotionally?

Click on any letter to see what to bring.

No Man Is An Island
As we reach the conclusion of this far-ranging study of isolation (and as we come to the end of our shared isolation that stole 16 months from all of us), we hope you have come to appreciate both the trials and triumphs of living in a less-populated space. But we also hope you understand that, as fellow members of the same species, we are all in this together, embarking on a shared journey that differs little from one human to the next. On that note, we leave you with the wise words of John Donne:
“No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls;
It tolls for thee.”

Guest Art Director: Rebecca Del Fabbro | Contributing Designers: Jessica Huddy and Mark Miller | Writers: Kerry Bennett, Owen Harris, William Harris

Cobalt’s Understanding(x) Series examines complex topics with the goal of increasing understanding among laypeople. At the end of each year, we hope to have a portfolio of materials about the chosen topics that will become part of the public record — a resource for teachers, students and citizens to draw upon in their quest for clarity and connection. If you have any suggestions for topics to be considered, drop us a line.